Sandeshkhali villagers get back their lands. But are they fit for farming? | Kolkata - Hindustan Times

Sandeshkhali villagers get back their lands. But are they fit for farming?

Mar 04, 2024 03:06 PM IST

More than 250 villagers have got back their lands which were earlier grabbed by TMC leader Shahjahan and his aides such as Hazra and Uttam Sardar

Sitting in the courtyard of her thatched hut beside a pond, 52-year-old Maya Kandar seemed to be very happy. Only last week she and her brother Debabrata Kandar, 47, got back their ancestral farmland after almost two years.

Police personnel interact with villagers at Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas district on February 25. (PTI)
Police personnel interact with villagers at Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas district on February 25. (PTI)

It was around March – April 2022 that Shibaprasad Hazra, a local TMC strongman, forcefully grabbed their eight bighas of farmland at Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas.

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“We used to cultivate paddy there. The produce was enough to sustain the two of us. We were not ready to give it up. But Hazra and his men threatened us. They turned the land into fish farms where they used to rear saline water fishes and prawns,” Maya said with a smile on her face.

She was not the only villager. Like the Kandars more than 250 villagers got back their lands which were earlier grabbed by TMC leader Shahjahan and his aides such as Hazra and Uttam Sardar.

But after protests erupted in Sandeshkhali in February this year, with village women demanding the arrest of Shahjahan and his men over allegations of land grabbing and sexual assault, the administration stepped in.

While TMC leaders Shahjahan, Hazra and Sardar were arrested the government started returning the land to the rightful owners.

“A camp was set up at the BDO office of Sandeshkhali block II since February 18 to receive grievances of villagers. We received more than 300 complaints related to land grabbing. Complaints also poured in at the district magistrate’s office and a separate camp set up by the police,” said a senior officer of the district administration.

The complaints were verified, the documents checked. The land was measured and if all documents were found to be in place, the land was returned to villagers.

“Around 250 villagers have already got back their lands. The total area of the land returned till date is more than 500 bighas,” said the officer.

High Salinity

The jubilation of the villagers may not be long lived. Scientists and agriculture-experts are skeptical whether land returned could be used for agriculture in the near future.

Their reason: As these vast swathes of farmlands remained submerged under saline water of the fish farms for more than two to three years, the top soil has been damaged. A layer of salt has settled down on the top soil. These lands may not be able to produce crops in the next five to ten years at least.

“The longer a land stays under saline water, the longer it would take to revive. The thumb rule is that if a land is under water for one year, it would take two years to revive. It takes double the time,” said Chittaranjan Kole, former vice chancellor of Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya in West Bengal.

Experts said that as the top soil, which is the most fertile part and has highest concentration of organic matter and micro-organisms which help plants to grow, has been damaged by the saline water, it needs to be replaced.

“The salt needs to be removed first. The farmland needs to be dug at least two to three feet and fresh soil need to be dumped. Later salt tolerant varieties of paddy may be cultivated. It would take a few years,” said Kole.

Swapan Kumar Dutta, former deputy director general (crop) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, said that instead of farming, fishery could be a viable alternative on these lands.

“Making these lands fit for agriculture again will take time, effort and money. Instead, fish farming will be an economically viable alternative. But the government needs to intervene. The farmer who has little or no knowledge of fish farming would have to be hand held for a few years,” said Dutta.

Senior officials in the district and in Sandeshkhali block – II said that as these lands were under saline water for the last few years, they have started soil testing. The reports are yet to arrive.

“Teams comprising agriculture experts from the district and block administration have started visiting the farm lands and collecting samples for soil testing. Once the reports come in, we would be able to decide as to how much damage has been done and what could be done,” said a senior officer of the district.

He said that plans are also being drown to dig up canals and ponds so that rain water may be stored once the monsoon sets in around June. This fresh water may be used to irrigate the lands. Also, fresh water stored in the canals and ponds, would gradually seep into the farmlands and mitigate the effect of the salt.

“Most of the lands, which were turned into fish farms, have been under saline water for a maximum of two to three years. Also, they were not continuously under saline water for the entire period. In fish farming, the water needs to be pumped out and the lands are dried for a few months to prepare them for the next season,” said an official of the district fishery department.

Officials said that some salt tolerant paddy may be cultivated if the salinity of the soil is less. For that soil samples are being tested.

“We have already engaged the fishery department simultaneously so that fish farms may also be done in some of the land,” said an official.

The district irrigation department has also started to constitute water association groups comprising villagers on how to use the rain water stored in the ponds. It may be used to produce sweet water fishes and also to irrigate the farmlands.

“Detailed project reports are being prepared,” he added.

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    Joydeep Thakur is a Special Correspondent based in Kolkata. He focuses on science, environment, wildlife, agriculture and other related issues.

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